Just as I began my search in earnest for my love of all things food, my father is diagnosed with colon cancer. It was a devastating blow to all of us. There is the worry and concern for my father, and then the worry and resentment my mother is in no way able to take care of him. There was one day of complete worry about the future for him or if there would be one. Then he saw his surgeon and hope sprang eternal when he was informed he would have a less invasive surgery and basically resume a normal life.
My sister and I sat at the table with our parents, and we both pleaded the case for healthier eating. My father is the type to eat a dinner, a second helping then a bologna sandwich an hour later. Their cupboards are stocked with chips, sweet treats and enough carbs to fuel the Boston Marathon. Their freezer is overflowing with frozen food and ice cream. My sister and I insisted he needed to change his diet not only for this latest health set back, but also because of his twenty year battle with heart disease.
The first thing my mother did is angrily insist his diet does not need to change. Our relationship now is cold and distant, there is resentment and anger simmering between us like a volatile moltov cocktail waiting to explode at any moment. There have been several times I’ve pleaded with my mother to not bring boxes of Ho Ho’s and Twinkies into the house. She insists my father should have more willpower and be able to not eat the things he shouldn’t.
When I first returned to Kentucky, I began cooking healthy foods for my father. We attempted a strict heart healthy diet in hopes of helping him lose pounds quickly after yet another heart stint was necessary. My mother doubled her efforts to bring home his favorite fatty foods and by the time I moved out, the diet was long forgotten and he had returned to enjoying fried foods with mom again. My mother also refuses to smoke outside despite begin informed by a Cardiologist she should for my father’s health.
So, I thought about food again but this time as a way to nourish and heal the body. I’m making double steel cut oatmeal this morning and I wish I could convince my father how it’s not only healthy, but delicious. I believe the biggest obstacle to my father changing his eating habits, is indeed my mother. She likes the attention on her and her illnesses. Yesterday, when we sat at the table, she began crying and everyone there completely ignored her. Within seconds, her tears were dried and she stomped off to another room. My father’s health has now become the focus of our attention and she does not like it.
I’m now not thinking about my love of food, but what it does for my body. When I eat healthy, I feel healthy. With the gene pool I’ve been cursed with, it’s more important than ever that I am mindful of what I do put in my body. It’s not enough I’ve given up meat and maintain a vegetarian lifestyle. I’ve given up coffee and have replaced my tea with decaf. I’m insisting my daughter make healthier choices. Who knows maybe by example I can convince my father to replace his ice cream with Greek yogurt.
So I woke up feeling fruity so I made a smoothie with almond mild (so yummy) and frozen strawberries and mango. This time I didn’t include my usual two packets of Splenda. I had my usual coffee sans cream. For lunch, I had a salad with sunflower seeds and feta cheese. Dinner was leftover butternut squash and greens.
Let’s be honest. Nothing exciting about today’s food. But the smoothie was delicious and the salad was filling. Dinner was more of a throw together because I was exhausted by the time I got home. I really wanted a piece of caramel, but of course I want a piece of salted caramel, so decadent and delicious a Werther’s will not do.
I’m feuding with my parents again. It’s a culmination of all these years with a dash of how they treat my daughter sprinkled on top. But exploring food, brings me home again. It was always food that brought us together as a family, that was a catalyst for a visit or celebration. It was food my mother taught me was a balm for the blues. Having traveled and explored, I learned to differentiate between good food and mediocre. There really is no going back. Not with food, not with my family.
So I’ll look for that salted caramel this week and try to be a little more adventurous.
*For my beloved D, who has shown me the notes
Muriel collected sounds instead of sea shells or elephant figurines. The rasp of a man’s stubble as he ran his fingers over his cheeks while deep in thought was filed away. The rhythmic clanking of metal wheels on a train track soothed her to sleep at night. She awoke every morning to the chatter of birds even though her apartment was ten stories above the city. When she sat on the subway every evening on her way home from work, she could hear the soft lulling sound of a violin.
She had carried these snippets of sound with her since childhood. They were neatly filed away in her brain and she was able to access them when needed. Sometimes she would sit in a movie and only remember what sounds she heard; the crashing of a car, the sigh of a woman or the slap of a hand on flesh. If you asked her what the movie had been about, she would not be able to tell you.
Her obsession with the audible had made her transition into adulthood difficult. She was not able to relate to her peers who would cite popular songs and the only thing she could say she liked was a brief background of organ notes or a certain pitch to the singer’s voice. She was distracted by the noises around her and unable to concentrate on conversation for any meaningful period of time. So, she withdrew into her own world. She surrounded herself with hushed quiet by taking a librarian position.
Every afternoon, she walked the two blocks to the diner around the corner for a cup of soup and grilled cheese sandwich. She was not particularly adventurous with food, finding it a health necessity rather than anything one would enjoy. It all tasted very similar. She often thought she had given up the gift of taste for her acute hearing.
As usual, she ordered the broccoli and cheese, the Wednesday soup of the day, and her sandwich, and then retreated to the corner to read her newspaper. There was a baby in a stroller parked behind her mother who was passionately discussing something or another with another woman at the table. The baby babbled softly as she shook a plastic set of keys in her fat fingers and her mother’s bracelets jangled pleasantly as if it were an instrument playing along. Muriel smiled and pretended to read her paper.
She looked up just as the shuffle of rubber soled sneakers came within earshot. The young man who worked behind the counter was approaching her with a brown tray carrying two white porcelain bowls and a wax paper wrapped sandwich. She looked up into eyes she was certain would be called hazel, but not quite sure. Maybe they were blue. He had a few days growth of beard on his cheeks and he looked older than he probably was. She liked the prominent sweep of his nose and the softening around his lips as if he was trying not to smile. Then he cleared his throat, one of her most hated sounds, and she suppressed a shudder.
Before she had time to react, he sat down in the chair opposite her, the tray creating a loud thud against the Formica and then the metallic sound of silverware being jostled.
“I made you two soups today.” His voice had a soothing timbre, probably higher pitched and more uncertain than he would have liked. But it sounded so pleasing to her ears, she felt her face flush.
“I ordered the special.” She said back, hearing the timidity.
“You have to speak up.” He said, turning his head and she could see a flesh colored hearing aid poised in the graceful curve of ear. Then he turned to the other side and she could see he had a matching one in the other ear.
“Are you deaf?” She asked her voice louder than she thought necessary but she wasn’t sure.
“Not quite.” He smiled, his front two teeth barely overlapping and she thought it suited him perfectly. “I can hear, just not well.”
“I hear too well.” She replied. “I have exceptional hearing. Even the slightest sound my ears pick up.”
He cleared his throat. “Like what?”
“Like that baby rattle, or the oxygen pump of the old man in the corner or the ring of the cell phone of the waitress behind the counter.”
“Wow.” His smile widened. “Are all those noises annoying?”
“Sometimes.” For the first time she admitted to even herself.
“My name is Guy.” He offered her his hand and shook hers firmly. “I’m like that for tastes, even the slightest pinch of pepper or a vegetable not quite in season. I can taste it all.”
Muriel could not help but smile back. “My name is Muriel and I taste very little.”
“So, I’ve noticed.” He pushed a bowl of pale orange soup toward her. “Try the butternut squash.”
“I never have.”
“Try this one.”
So, she dipped the spoon in the soup and slowly lifted it to her lips, parting them as her tongue slid along the spoon. It was not unpleasant, but it was bland to her. She shrugged.
“Humph.” He grunted, unwrapping the sandwich. “Try the grilled cheese, I made it with gruyere.”
She wanted to pretend it was the most delicious food she had ever eaten, but she knew he would be able to tell. Instead she was honest. “It sort of tastes the same.”
Guy frowned and rubbed his fingers over his furry face and that sound sent a shiver down her spine. Then he smiled, and held up another spoon full of soup.
“Butternut squash tastes like the sound of a bass drum. It’s one note you have to add layers on. So the nutmeg is the clarinet playing softly on top and the cream is the flute and together they make a symphony of taste. And as you eat it, you will get a note of pepper, that’s the cymbal crashing in on your tongue. Sometimes a total surprise.” He held the spoon to her lips. “Now eat it with your eyes closed.”
And so she did, and for the first time in her life, she tasted the sound of food. She savored in the many notes he had described and when she swallowed she opened her eyes and looked into the most definite hazel of the man across from her.
“Now what does the jangle of bracelets taste like?” Guy asked.
“Like lemon Italian ice.” She said, as if it made total sense. “It’s tart, yet sweet and cold, and a sour delicious.”
“Ahhhh.” Guy closed his eyes and she knew he could hear the sound she was describing.
Muriel reached across the table and touched the tip of her fingers against his. “Thank you.”
“We’ve only just begun.” He winked and intertwined his fingers with hers. “You have a lifetime of food to eat and I have eons of sounds to hear.”
Muriel decided that day, the favorite sound she would ever hear was the sound of their laughter together. It tasted like happy.